The formative document in American Jewish history is not a legal treatise or an epic tale. In point of fact, it was not written by a Jew. It is a letter composed by the first American President to the “Hebrew” congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. The community had written with its heartfelt congratulations, and Washington wrote back with great warmth and sincerity.
The astonishment is that he went beyond the requirements of etiquette. He could have responded with eighteenth century politesse, and simply thanked the Jews for their expression of loyalty. Instead, he far exceeded that standard to leave us phrases that ring in the collective American ear. Sensing the anxieties of an American minority, he promised to lead a government that gave “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” At the essential moment, Washington defined America.
And not only that, he did so for a community that was quite obviously “other.” The first Jewish immigrants came to American from Brazil in the fall of 1654. By the time of Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport, the community was barely a century old, and included many newly arrived foreigners. Most of these were Portuguese Jewish immigrants who had yet to form an American identity. But Washington included all of them in his greeting. By some magnificent leap of political imagination, Washington saw all of them as American.
It is now a little over two centuries later, but this is most certainly an Old World moment, marked by paralyzing fear and perverse suspicion. In place of Washington’s vision of America—a place where its citizens recline under the fig tree of good fortune—we allow ourselves to be tortured by images of carnage. The world has not always been a pretty place, but it does not require us to pull up the ramparts and run in terror from refugee children. Good people who voted for the new administration are most certainly not hand-wringing cowards. Yet the leaders who speak in their name behave as if they were. This is not strength, but a failure of good sense, and a grotesque denial of fundamental responsibility. Why are we here if not to help one another? What could possibly be the sense of offering assistance to persecution.
Little by little, we must regain the advantage on behalf of humanity, confidence and the love of God. Adding to the grief of refugees and would-be immigrants is not a part of the American covenant. Washington saw the newcomers of his period as the promise of a diverse and healthy nation. He felt their energy, good will, and urgent need for refuge. We have a right to expect that all who succeed him will sing the American anthem with the same broad-minded love.
Rabbi Marc Boone Fitzerman